Over the years other companies have tried to roll out their own brands of sporting carpets, but most have not fared well. Poly-Turf was laid down in Miami's Orange Bowl but proved such a fiasco of fungus and split seams that its home company, American Biltrite, shut down the whole line in 1973. Other brands covered a stadium floor or two here and there in the 1970s, but many eventually went out of business, Durra Turf and Wyco Turf being among them. All-Pro Turf and SuperTurf got locked in lawsuits and a price battle in the early 1980s that wound up with SuperTurf declaring bankruptcy just this spring. There has been a spate of foreign firms in the business, and some are doing all right.
Omniturf, a Canadian-based firm, is now becoming a factor in the U.S. market. The carpet is produced by a different technique than other types of synthetic turf. An AstroTurf field is made from strips of cushioned pad covered with crimped blades of half-inch nylon "grass." The strips are stitched and glued together, and the whole carpet is attached to a layered base of gravel, concrete and asphalt. Omniturf, by contrast, is made of longer, straighter, one-inch polypropylene fibers, with a three-quarter-inch layer of sand spread between the blades. The sand acts both as ballast to hold the carpet down and as a resilient porous surface that drains off rainwater and offers firm footing. Omniturf has carpeted some 40 soccer fields in Europe and last year snagged its first U.S. football field deal, at the University of Oregon. The price was a bargain-basement $350,000. By contrast, AstroTurf bid $476,500. Reports about some European soccer fields put in by Omniturf indicate that the sand base tends to pack harder with use. One field in London got so hard that in order to keep soccer balls from bouncing too high they had to modify the turf by adding another layer of sand to it.
No matter what rivals rise and sink around it, AstroTurf has maintained a consistent No. 1 position both at home and abroad. Ed Milner, AstroTurf's international sales manager, says that it has, over the years, supplied something like 60% of the world's synthetic turf fields. In all, there are roughly 550 such fields in the world, about 250 in the U.S. Of the 41 major stadiums in America that house major league baseball or NFL football, 19 have synthetic turf, and all but two of them are carpeted with AstroTurf. Only the Patriots' field in Foxboro, Mass. and the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis use another surface—the defunct SuperTurf.
Leader though it is, sales were never easy for AstroTurf—and they aren't now. Says Tony Mortillo, Monsanto's product manager for AstroTurf, "This is the toughest competition we've ever had because of the value of the dollar against foreign currency. Our foreign competitors can underbid us by 30, 40, 50 percent. Our quality is far beyond them, but for buyers who want a low price, they can deliver that." Despite the ferocity of competition there seems to be no possibility that Monsanto will pull out of the market. There are no more than 35 or 40 fields to install or replace each year in the U.S., perhaps another 20 or so worldwide, yet Monsanto intends to keep lumbering after its usual lion's share. Milner says, "We refuse to take quality out of our product. But since we are the only big, visible company in the thing, we have a real exposure problem. We are worried about the quality of the turf being sold and how it reflects on us. I see a real safety and maintenance problem with some of our competitors."
Over all the years, the sales pitch of man's grass over God's has been essentially the same. The ersatz stuff allows far more hours of constant, varied use—some 3,000 hours more a year, according to Mortillo. It does not turn brown in the sunless environment of a domed stadium. It offers a more consistent surface. The stuff does wear out eventually, but Monsanto's latest crop—called AstroTurf-8—guarantees eight years of use, and Mortillo says most fields last 11 or 12 years. Also, turf folks claim, it costs much less to maintain a synthetic field than real grass. Mortillo says a grass stadium costs at least $40,000 a year to maintain while AstroTurf requires something like $4,000 a year to keep in shape.
This is the litany you use when pushing synthetic turf. It has proved extremely effective, but like all sales talks, it isn't 100% true. What about the hours and hours of perpetual use? Yes, marching bands and platoons of clog dancers can thunder up and down all over the stuff for days on end—but can a serious football team really practice on it for days on end? No. Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, says, "I'm opposed to artificial surfaces for practice during the week because there is too much strain and stress on the joints."
What about the long-lasting qualities? Bob Woodruff, athletic director of the University of Tennessee, says, "Let's face it: The longer you have an artificial surface, the harder it gets. They really should be replaced every five or six years, and some schools just can't afford it."
What about the unchanging, consistent flat surface? George Toma, groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs, is so revered in the grass business that he is known far and wide as the Sultan of Sod. Says the Sultan, "There are plenty of problems with inconsistency. They aren't caused by the surface itself, but by what is underneath it. If the base isn't done right, it can leave big and little dips in the surface. We call them birdbaths. The bad thing about turf is that once you've got a bad field, you're stuck with it. A grass field, on the other hand, no matter how bad it is, you can turn the thing around in a month."
What about the vaunted savings in maintenance? The Sultan says no way. "The Chiefs use a grass field to practice three or four times a week," he says. "It takes us 10 hours a week to clean up the field and another 10 hours a week to cut the grass, fertilize and water. After just one game on the turf, we have to spend lots more time on it. Shoes leave shoe polish. There is tobacco juice on it, Gatorade, blood, gum, things like that. We use brushes and a special solution. It may take four or five guys two or three full days to get all that cleaned up. Right there, that's going to be at least 64 man-hours, minimum. If it was a hard-fought game there are more marks, and it can mean a whole extra day."